Accidentally Attending the Alarde Festival

As we were approaching the town of Hondarribia on the Camino de Santiago, little did we know that a huge festival was underway.

Actually, our guide Txaro (pronounced Charo) knew but she didn’t want to spoil the surprise.

See all of our adventures in the Basque Country here.

Our plan was to stop at a small church up on Monte Jaizkibel above the city, the sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe, for a look at the famous Madonna inside. The statue was found centuries ago and is one of only three so-called black Madonnas in Spain.

While we did get a peek at the figure, we had to fight our way through some serious crowds because we had stumbled upon an event that we will never forget.

The festivities were part of the Alarde, an annual celebration commemorating Hondarribia’s survival of a siege by the troops of King Louis XIII of France.

In the summer of 1638, the city was surrounded and the citizens swore to the Virgin of Guadalupe that if they managed to escape they would hold an annual procession to her shrine.

The blockade lasted sixty nine days, but the Basques endured, and now each year they honor their pledge with a party more than worthy of the victory.

The little chapel was overflowing with worshipers attending the special mass that began the proceedings, so we waited outside in what became an incredibly noisy perch overlooking Hondarribia, the Bidasoa River, Txingudi Bay, and France across the water.

Cannon fire was coordinated to punctuate, and we do mean strongly, certain parts of the service, and we just happened to end up right by them as they went off. When a final blast signaled the end of the liturgy, the priest led the congregation out into the streets to begin the parade.

With ears ringing, we watched dozens of men in huge sheepskin hats and long black beards march around the church.

They carried various tools, shovels and so forth, as a reminder of the townsfolk who dug their way past the enemy lines disguised as sheep in order to seek help from neighboring villages.

These guys, called hatxeroak in the Basque language, are without a doubt the rock stars of the spectacle and the crowd went crazy.

Next, several companies of fife and drum corps marched past, followed by a huge troop of riflemen.

The armed contingent stopped in front of the church to fire a salute, the first of much gun fire we would be observing during the day. By now our ears were shot, but we figured out that this seemed to signal that it was time to make way for the city below.

We walked down the path to Hondarribia and prepared for the scene to repeat, but this time with a much larger crowd of spectators.

The entire old town within the medieval walls was wall-to-wall merrymakers. The cobblestone lanes were jammed and every balcony filled with spectators.

In a much larger parade than the one up on the mountain, numerous regiments representing the town’s neighborhoods marched through the streets to the Plaza de las Armas where they gathered and loaded up for numerous volleys.

At the same time the cannons, we think the same ones as before, fired incredibly loud barrages out toward the vanquished French.

Clouds of gun powder induced smoke billowed and hovered over the city.

The smell was something akin to the Fourth of July on steroids.

We had a leg up on blending in because this is Txaro’s hometown, so to help us look like locals she had instructed us to wear white shirts and gave us all red bandanas to wear around our necks.

It was a wonderful touch that, even though we’re sure most folks could tell we were visitors from afar, made us feel right at home.

Feeling a bit less conspicuous, we wandered among the throngs and joined the merriment as artillery and rifle reports, music and peals of church bells surrounded us.

Each square we came to had crowds of revelers singing, waving flags, and drinking beer or cider.

The celebration continued while afternoon turned to evening, and then night, so we crawled into bed while listening to the joviality go on well into the wee hours…

David & Veronica,

See all of our adventures in the Basque Country here.

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

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